In a World of Mallets highlights the growth of Jason Marsalis as a full-fledged vibraphonist. Sure, he worked on the instrument for years before releasing his first vibes album, Music Update, in 2009, but he hedged his bets with a handful of overdubbed drum features that comprised more than a third of the tracks on that disc. The remaining music revealed him to be an engaging but still rudimentary vibes stylist, furthering the impression that this foray fell somewhere between a lark and an experiment.
Lest there be any doubt Marsalis wanted a do-over, three songs from Update are repeated on Mallets in pretty much the same order. The comparative enhancements in Marsalis’ technique are not dramatic but vital nevertheless, from the shape and integrity of his notes on the simple waltz “Ballet Class,” to the way he lofts and paces the tempo on the ballad “Characters,” to the sprightly confidence with which he roams on “Blues for the 29%ers.”
But three other songs really herald the crystallization of Marsalis as a vibraphonist. “Big Earl’s Last Ride,” by bassist Will Goble (pianist Austin Johnson and drummer David Potter also each contribute a song), finds Marsalis mastering the marinating resonance on the vibes that can make a song seem both fragile and lustrous. “The Nice Mailman’s Happy Song to Ann,” by keyboardist-vocalist Brian Coogan (who plays with Marsalis in John Ellis’ Double-Wide), captures the guileless mischief and playful impulsiveness of Marsalis’ personality, and inspires him into a spirited yet still multifaceted performance. But best of all is “Closing Credits,” a Marsalis original that has the mood shifts and panache of a tune that caps off a set. It finds him venturing into bop (something he actually avoids when covering Bobby Hutcherson’s “My Joy”) and engaging his ensemble, especially Potter, before polishing the tune off with a hypnotic vamp.
Like Update, Mallets also has an overdubbed “Discipline” set of tunes. But this time Marsalis eschews the drums and goes with vibes, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel and tubular bells. He’s a mallet man after all.